The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The night thousands of Nazis packed Madison Square Garden for a rally — and violence erupted

Men struggle with a protester at New York's Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939, during a pro-Nazi rally. Fritz Kuhn, the national German American Bund leader, stands on the rostrum. (AP Photo) (N/A/AP)

“Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans,” the banners cried out. “Wake Up America. Smash Jewish Communism,” others admonished, draping from the rafters above a packed, roaring crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

On Feb. 20, 1939, 22,000 members of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group, took over the venue that stars still consider a peak achievement if you can fill it up. That night, it was a full house for Bund leader Fritz Kuhn, who had become a household name as the “American Hitler. ”

Dozens of the Bund’s drum and bugle corps marched down the center aisle and mounted the stage, which featured a 30-foot-tall portrait of George Washington surrounded by American and Bund flags. Color guards bearing more Nazi flags followed behind.

Then 3,000 of the Bund’s version of Adolf Hitler’s SS protection squadron troops, the Ordnungsdienst — or OD for short — marched in dressed in SS-like uniforms of black pants, black shoes, gray shirts, Sam Browne military cross straps and swastika insignia.

“Sieg Heil!” the OD and the crowd shouted, with arms outstretched in a sea of Nazi salutes.

“The 1939 rally was a shocking event for most people,” Bradley Hart, professor at California State University at Fresno and author of “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States,” said in an interview. “There was no way you could ignore it. ”

The Bund claimed 20,000 members and 100,000 sympathizers across the country at the time of the rally. Members were everyday people, from butchers and steelworkers to bakers and housewives. Many were among the 400,000 Germans who immigrated to the United States between 1919 and 1933, when the post-World War I German economy was in shambles.

The organization sponsored Nazi summer camps for families and children, the largest being Camp Siegfried in nearby Yaphank, N.Y., whose main thoroughfare was called Adolf Hitler Street.

The official flier advertising the Nazi rally displayed a swastika emblem over the words “True Americanism and George Washington Birthday Exercises. ”

Civic groups were outraged over the Bund equating Nazism with Americanism.

“The German American Bund wanted to identify as Americans and give the veneer that they were about America,” said Arnie Bernstein, author of “Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund. ”

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New Yorkers of all stripes wanted to shut down the rally, and the city’s tiny Socialist Worker’s Party took the lead in building a counter demonstration, the New York Times reported.

The group “announced it had distributed 200,000 circulars calling for a march of workers on Madison Square Garden to ‘stop the fascists.’”

“Don’t wait for the concentration camps — Act now!” the fliers cried out, according to International Socialist Review writer Joe Allen, who also writes that the New York Daily News, then with a circulation of 2 million, reproduced the leaflet in its pages.

And the city heard the call. As the Bund color guard took the stage inside the arena, more than 100,000 New Yorkers gathered outside the Garden, ready to fight the Nazis.

The thousands of demonstrators carried signs that said “Give me a gas mask, I can’t stand the smell of Nazis,” “Smash Anti-Semitism,” and a group of Jewish American war veterans from Brooklyn wrapped themselves in a huge American flag.

The groups surged toward the Garden. But the New York City police force had gotten there first. About 1,700 officers were waiting for the protesters.

“We have enough police here to stop a revolution,” Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine said.

New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had ordered the massive police presence. In the days before the rally, alarmed Jewish leaders in the city asked LaGuardia to pull the permit for the Bund event. But LaGuardia, who was personally anti-Nazi and whose mother was Jewish, advocated for the First Amendment.

“By providing freedom of speech rights to the German-American Bund in one of New York’s crown jewels was a clear example of what LaGuardia called ‘a contrast between the way we do things here and the way they do things there,’” the Times reported.

As Bund members and their OD officers arrived for the rally, the counter demonstrators shouted anti-Nazi slogans and rushed to attack them. A wall of horse-mounted officers pushed back against the crowd to protect the Nazis. But fights broke out between demonstrators, Bund members and police on the ground who were brandishing billy clubs.

The rally started inside and then speaker after speaker took the stage to denounce “Jewish control” of American institutions.

Meanwhile, the chaos outside escalated. A large group of Jewish American veterans carrying an American flag marched down Ninth Avenue to protest the Nazis. But they were cornered by officers on horseback, who drove the men off the sidewalk, scattering them into the street and against storefronts and doorways to keep them from getting close to the Garden.

The crowd near the arena chanted and shouted as fights continued between police and protesters. An African American man who was grabbed by a mounted policeman actually punched the officer’s horse in the face to try to get free.

Meanwhile, inside, the rally reached its agitated peak as Bund leader Kuhn took the stage for the final speech of the night.

Heavyset with thick eyeglasses, “Fritz Kuhn was the most unlikely leader you could imagine,” Bernstein said. Kuhn previously worked as a chemist for Ford Motor Co., where he was fired for his anti-Semitic politicking, despite Henry Ford’s own anti-Semitism.

“If you ask what we are actively fighting for under our charter: First, a socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States. Second, Gentile-controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination,” Kuhn told the crowd

Kuhn then incited the crowd by referring to President Roosevelt as “Rosenfield” and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey as “Thomas ‘Jewey.’” The city’s half-Jewish/half-Catholic mayor became “Jew lumpen LaGuardia,” Bernstein writes in “Swastika Nation. ”

Suddenly, a man charged the stage to attack Kuhn. As he crawled over the speakers to tackle Kuhn, the Bund’s OD officers and police ran and grabbed the man, punching and kicking him, to the delight of the Nazi American youth group watching onstage. He was later identified as Jewish American Isadore Greenbaum. After his pants were nearly torn off his body and his clothes were ripped, Greenbaum was held overhead by a group of policemen who carried him out of the Garden and charged him with disorderly conduct.

Kuhn wrapped up his tirade at 11 p.m. When Bund followers left the Garden, some protesters managed to throw a few final punches at the Nazis, according to the Times. “But police broke them up and by 12 a.m. Eighth Avenue was quiet. ”

Just 13 protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct, including Greenbaum, who was charged a $25 fine.

“In 1939, American Jewry was terrified that Nazism could happen in America,” Robert Rockaway, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University said in an interview, noting that the Bund was using the Constitution and First Amendment to attack Jews.

Many of the rally’s speakers talked about patriotism and Americanism, which is the kind of language that can be abused by political groups, Bernstein said: “White nationalists are not shy about perverting what America really stands for. ”

The newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, which organized the counter protest, reported that after the rally, two Bund members were overheard discussing the evening as they went down the Garden’s stairs toward the street.

“It was worth 40 cents just to see the cops beat that fellow on the stage,” one said.

The other replied, “Yes. But all this is just practice for what’s coming. ”

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